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Case-Deaton and the human capital debate

Author(s): Noah Smith

From Noahpinion:

Everyone is talking about the Case-Deaton paper that shows an increase in mortality among American white people. Most people have noted that the increase is concentrated among less-educated whites. Here is the relevant excerpt from the paper:

The three numbered rows of Table 1 show that the turnaround in mortality for white non-Hispanics was driven primarily by increasing death rates for those with a high school degree or less. All-cause mortality for this group increased by 134 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2013. Those with college education less than a BA saw little change in all-cause mortality over this period; those with a BA or more education saw death rates fall by 57 per 100,000. Although all three educational groups saw increases in mortality from suicide and poisonings, and an overall increase in external cause mortality, increases were largest for those with the least education... 

The final two rows of the table show increasing educational gradients from 1999 and 2013; the ratio of midlife all-cause mortality of the lowest to the highest educational group rose from 2.6 in 1999 to 4.1 in 2013.

And here is the table:

This paper provides some hard data to corroborate a story we have been seeingthe debate on whether education - particularly college - Here is an NBER paper by David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney that supports my conjecture. I didn't find any other good-looking recent papers on the topic with a quick Google Scholar search. From the abstract:

There is a large and persistent association between education and health...The education ‘gradient’ is found for both health behaviors and health status, though the former does not fully explain the latter. The effect of education increases with increasing years of education, with no evidence of a sheepskin effect. Nor are there differences between blacks and whites, or men and women...We then consider differing reasons why education might be related to health. The obvious economic explanations – education is related to income or occupational choice – explain only a part of the education effect. We suggest that increasing levels of education lead to different thinking and decision-making patterns. The monetary value of the return to education in terms of health is perhaps half of the return to education on earnings[.]

The Cutler and Lleras-Muney paper also reviews some natural-experiment studies indicating that the effect is causal for pre-college education (though college has on income.)

A tendency toward healthy behavior is a powerful and important form of human capital. It is not at all clear that this kind of human capital can (or will) be created by MOOCs, self-study, or other forms of online learning that are being touted as replacements for college. In fact, right now it looks like the health-related human capital boost from college is all that is holding it together for our upper middle class.


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